100 Days

ONE hundred days from now, everything changes.

Instead of sitting in an office, working my way through things which have become routine over the years and plotting out a working week that will follow familiar patterns, only the unknown will be lying in wait.

Rather than heading home from work to an instantly recognisable world – TV, wi-fi, my own bed, food bought in the same old places – it will all be brand new.

Home will be replaced by Africa. Africa will become home for the next 10 months, not knowing exactly where the next bed or, at times, even meal will be. All in the company of  a group of people who have never met (well, most of them).

One hundred days from today, we’ll be boarding a plane to Gibraltar and our first stop in Europe, but that’s only a brief flirtation with the familiar before crossing into Morocco and taking the plunge into the whole new world.

And how is it as the countdown reaches this landmark?

A bit weird to be honest, living in a sort of limbo. Not only is the long list of things to do still expanding before real dents are made in it – the first small indents on a pre-US trip week off, more items crossed off as the countdown continues towards finishing work and, finally, the last, frantic race through the rest of the list in the final two weeks – but normal life has been skewed slightly.

If things were normal, there would be several everyday items in my life which needed replacing – my bed, a new pair of work shoes, both work trousers and a pair of shorts where change doesn’t fall straight through the pockets – but it is all having to wait, playing second fiddle on the shopping list to stuff which will make the cut to go in the rucksack (also on the list), not sit in storage for 10 months.

There’s the odd exception to all this. That trip to the US is to a wedding, so one or two smarter purchases are necessary. If you spot me wearing the same stuff over and over again – well, more than normal – between returning to work and heading off again, it’s making sure it gets used before being packed up to sit somewhere, not sure exactly where yet, for the best part of the year. And because a lot of stuff is about to fall victim to a pretty brutal clothing cull.

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Not quite sure where all this is going (bar the cowboy hat, which shouldn’t really be there in the first place)

It is those matters – such as what to do with the few items of furniture in my flat that aren’t taking a fast track to the tip and the ultimate fate of my car – which are the most difficult to sort.

What makes it in to that rucksack (as little as possible) and a lot of the preparations for the trip itself are fairly straightforward. There’s visas to be got (thankfully only two before the off) and jabs to be had.

But the visas are, once you have got your head around the process, generally fairly routine and a case of following instructions (although this is Africa, so those words could come back to haunt me).

And the vaccinations – and malaria – have been put very much in the hands of a travel clinic, once my doctor’s surgery took one look at the list of countries on the itinerary and suggested this was one for the experts. So, the appointment is booked for a consultation and those experts can work out exactly which combination of needles they want to stick in me.

That appointment is recorded, as those of you paying attention to previous posts will recall, on the to-do list.

Well, pretty sure it is, The sacred master to-do list (which often doesn’t get finished on a daily basis due to the amount of time keeping it updated) was on the screen when my laptop decided to throw a wobbly and delete it.

After exhausting my extensive IT knowledge – turning it off and back on again, once it was established that was not going to delete anything else – what had been on the rest of that evening’s to-do list was replaced by the simple job of rewriting it from the last time it was backed up. Only a couple of weeks, but long enough to make it quite a task remembering exactly what was on it and when.

Somehow, washing the bathroom floor did stick in my head and made it onto the new list – not surprising, given how often it has been pushed back – but heading to the doctors for a blood test did not. At least until 20 minutes before the appointment, on the way out of the door to go to work.

Thankfully, the newly-updated Africa and Kit lists were not hit by the glitch, but like all of them, they are now subject to a new system of e-mailing to myself once a week.

And you wondered why I need to get away from all this.

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Blackhole to Blue-Eyed Pop

DON’T blame it on the sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, Blame It On The Tetons.

Not sure exactly what Modest Mouse had in mind when they attempted to pin something on the chunk of the Rocky Mountains just south of Yellowstone National Park.

But doubt they were thinking of small, furry creatures, this blog and an alphabetical journey through an iPod.

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Norman

Yet glance to the top of this page and name of this site and it all owes a great amount to a few days in the Tetons (or the Tits as the early French settlers would have had it).

Sat up on top of this and all pages on this site is Norman, who has left a legacy from three days staying in the Tetons en route between its bigger, better known National Park cousins, Yosemite and Yellowstone.

Norman lived on the banks of Jenny Lake, where the group of us who were journeying across the US on the final leg of our London to New York overland adventure, headed out for the day.

While his furry buddies scurried off into the undergrowth, Norman assured his place in posterity by remaining totally nerveless as our group of three stopped on the path and pointed camera lenses in his direction, even having the decency to stop rooting for food long enough to sit up and face us.

Jenny Lake
Jenny Lake

Why Norman? Not quite sure, the moniker was given to him by one of my walking companions and it stuck, especially when his picture started popping up in the collections of pictures from three months on the road – longer for those of us who extended our times in the States.

Why he holds such an exalted role in this site is less certain.

Late one evening, the idea of transferring the initial London to New York articles from a community blogging site to this personal one was being kicked around during a stay at an old friend’s who knows something about that sort of thing.

The next morning, the same friend had got up early and greeted my bleary-eyed arrival with this newly-created website and, somewhere along the way, Norman’s tale provided the inspiration for the name and the Travel Marmot was born.*

Blame it on the Tetons indeed.

Not that Norman is the only thing which made the Tetons stick in my mind. Far from it.

We arrived having driven up from San Francisco, via a beautiful, sweltering day in the open-air cathedral formed by the peaks of Yosemite, up through Nevada and an incident-packed white water rafting trip on the Snake River at Jackson, Wyoming – complete with a downpour and calamitous capsize for our sister raf,t which left people strewn all over the place and a frantic rescue which probably seemed far more dramatic than it was from our position perched on the edge of a raft being tossed around by the maelstrom.

Snake River Lager
Snake River Lager

Our arrival at Colter Bay, our Tetons base for three nights and not initially something which leapt out of the itinerary, was met with delight as it provided the holy trinity of overland travellers – warm showers, a laundry and a bar, which served a brew called Snake River which we were far happier to swallow than its namesake.

Add in wi-fi, plug points in the toilet block near our campsite to charge our modern-day travelling needs and the most staggering, huge night sky – although the warning of bears around the site ensured we didn’t hang around in the open too much to savour it all on the second night on site.

So maybe it’s not a case of blaming the Tetons, but thanking them.

Modest Mouse’s reminder of those few days popped up as we escaped the Blackhole (kicking off this section courtesy of Beck), stumbled Blind and Blank for a while and ended up tangled up in blue, ending with Blue-Eyed Pop from the Sugarcubes – track number 999.

It’s been an eclectic bag with three versions of both indie classic Blister In The Sun by The Violent Femmes (always a welcome visitor, especially on a sunny drive home after work) and, aptly given its proximity to the death of their final remaining member Tommy, the inimitable intro and force of nature that is Blitzkrieg Bop (albeit one of them by Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros).

Blankest Year by Nada Surf dates back to my first iPod, pre-dating by a few weeks my first laptop, meaning it had to be populated by the contents of my brother-in-law’s, as indeed does Blind Willie McTell by Bob Dylan, just at the time when he was starting to make his mark in my collection.

And you can throw in entries by a couple of old faithfuls – Billy Bragg’s version of Blake’s Jerusalem and Blue Badge Abuser by Half Man Half Biscuit.

There was also two versions of Blight Takes All – one of …And They Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead’s more accessible moments – and all 17 minutes 45 seconds of Blaise Bailey Finnegan III by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a surprisingly enjoyable and intriguing blast of sound behind an interview with an American survivalist.

Possibly a neighbour of Norman’s.

*The same friend continued his role as the Patron Saint of Travel Marmot by solving an issue which had locked the whole site up before he managed to somehow force his way in. Cheers Jase

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The Birds Were Singing Of You to Black-Eyed Susie

BIT of a delay in this post as the last week or so has disappeared into a black hole – both in terms of a long run of tracks on the iPod and the way time appears to have disappeared into the abyss.

To a soundtrack that started and finished with the vintage Americana of Uncle Earl, the last couple of weeks have crammed in a stag weekend in Edinburgh, far too much time sat in the office, not enough time sat watching the Tour de France, a leaving do, the tail end of the World Cup and, perhaps inevitably after the last post, problems with my car.

Gypsy's Curse
Gypsy’s Curse

It was almost the blogging alternative of the commentator’s curse – a phrase which conjures images of being forced to listen endlessly to Andy Townsend by an angry gypsy.

No sooner had my car’s remarkable staying power been praised in writing than it decided to stop working. One minute it was fine, the next it refused to budge, like a recalcitrant horse who had just been informed it was off to the knacker’s yard (as appears the likeliest outcome for my car ahead of me heading off to Africa).

Turning the key produced nothing but a fading whirr and evidence the electrics had given in, resetting the clock to January 1, 1900 (not that the clock’s car has been right for years).

By the time the RAC man pulled up just before 10.30pm two days later – that black hole had sucked away the time until a belated call – there wasn’t even a whirr.

It took approximately 30 seconds for him to diagnose the problem – a bad cell in the battery – and relay the news that the car had been driving around with a battery which was too small for at least the 12 years it has been ferrying me about.

It had also been held in place by the same screws for all that time, several of which had got quite attached to their spots under my bonnet, ensuring the twitching curtains of the nursing home next to where the car was parked had a few minutes’ longer to watch what these two blokes were doing that late at night (well, what one was doing and what was just nodding along to while realising he had just bought a new battery for a car that was likely to reach the end of its road in a couple of months).

One side effect of the car problem – and one of the reasons ringing the RAC was delayed to avoid being called out halfway through – was the walk home from watching the World Cup final at my sister’s.

Or rather, the walk home at half-time in extra-time to provide more time to watch the highlights of that day’s Tour de France stage. The walk home that, having watched 105 minutes of goalless football, ended with my front door opening accompanied by a tweet congratulating me on causing Mario Goetze’s winning goal.

At least Andy Townsend wasn’t commentating.

Tour De France `89Le Tour has been my summer obsession since Channel 4 first started showing daily highlights in the mid-1980s – in fact, even before that when World of Sport showed a weekly lunchtime round-up.

While the crack of leather on willow may be the traditional soundtrack of summers gone by – increasingly supplanted by the great God of football – mine has long been the sounds of excitable Frenchmen, drug allegations, Gary Imlach, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (the last two of which, sadly, have seen better days).

Never has a cheese and ham toastie (ordered a croque monsieur, but let’s be honest about what it really is) tasted so good as the one eaten at the top of the Col du Tourmalet, high point of one of the great climbs of the Tour, which also happens to be the spot where a chair lift drops you off above the Pyrenean ski resort of Bareges.

Have managed to see the Tour live once, on the Champs Elysees of all places, as our arrival in Paris at the start of a few days just happened to coincide with the arrival of the Tour.

With no idea of the day’s programme or where to stand, two of us waited for hours among the crowds for repeated fleeting glimpses of the peloton as it roared past to the last of Miguel Indurain’s five victories. It was not until we got home a few days later that we discovered who had won the stage a couple of hundred yards down the road from where we stood – the Tashkent Terror himself, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov.

That French trip – which centred around Annecy, where we cycled around the lake that would later form the centrepiece of a Tour time trial and narrowly avoided a collision with a ferry on a pedalo – was soundtracked (via Walkman) largely by Sonic Youth and The Lemonheads

The Lemonheads popped up again in the latest batch of tracks with Bit Part, slipping in just after Birthday by The Sugarcubes, a song which again operated strictly to a law of diminishing returns.

Fresh and intoxicating on first hearing, it became almost ubiquitous and annoying after a while (the band certainly did a lot better) and sitting through four versions on the train to Bristol had a similar effect – sounding good on the first hearing for a long time, it had lost all of its charm by the final outing.

Biting The Soles of My Feet by Electric Soft Parade never really got the chance to become old hat, residing as it did on a CD that got stuck in the multi-changer in the boot of my car which foiled the best efforts of more than one garage to release before my then local Peugeot dealer took the whole casing out and sent it off to HQ across the channel.

Quite what the French mechanics made of  …And They Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, heaven only knows.

John Grant
John Grant

Elsewhere, the continuing journey through Bs took in The Verve (Bitter Sweet Symphony), The Jam (Bitterest Pill…), Graham Coxon (Bittersweet Bundle of Misery) and New Order (Bizarre Love Triangle) before depositing us into the long list of Black… songs.

And there has not been that much escaping from the black hole as a ray of musical light.

Pick of the bunch has been Black Belt, the first entry from the truly wonderful John Grant (probably my favourite performance from the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, albeit largely tucked away on the red button), and Black Star by Radiohead.

Honourable mentions go to Squeeze (Black Coffee In Bed), Bob Mould (Black Sheets of Rain) and Hammock’s version of Black Metallic (strangely, don’t have the Catherine Wheel original on the iPod), while Mercury Rev took us through 900 with Black Forest (Lorelei).

Bucking scientific thinking, the escape from the black hole is thankfully imminent…

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The Bell to Birds Flew Backwards

“And now I know how Joan of Arc felt…”

THAT is if Joan of Arc had a week crammed with Glastonbury (from the safety of my sofa), football, the ongoing saga of my house and bemoaning the non-working electric windows in my car. Doubt it somehow, but we both got a bit hot.

Having repeatedly fallen out of love with over-hyped, over-commercialised, over-scrutinised Premier League football, it has been refreshing to sit down, watch the World Cup and remember the drama, thrilling moments and unpredictability which made so much of the globe fall in love with it in the first place.

We'll get there, just read on...
We’ll get there, just read on…

The latest chapter in the story of my house was supposed to be the last one – it being taken off the market with three new tenants due to be moving in yesterday and taking delivery of  a new bed for the middle bedroom.

Instead, with a reference form still unreturned to the agents, the move-in date is in danger of being moved back – again – and it needed a hurried dash from the osteopath’s table in Cheltenham to Cardiff to await the bed.

And while it provided a chance to cover a fair amount of ground through the B section of my iPod – mainly through the songs beginning Big, Bill and Bird – it was another chance to regret not getting the non-opening electric windows fixed.

My car has become something of a miracle – bereft of any noticeable care for years, it has just kept going. Four years ago, it looked like it had reached its natural end, having been kept on the road up to the point just long enough to be left behind in favour of other transport around the globe.

But on my return, it spluttered back into life – eventually – and with more travels always just over the horizon, it never seemed worthwhile replacing it with a newer version destined to sit unmoving for months on end.

And while my car has kept on going as travelling plans got shunted back, it has developed a few eccentricities. There is a strange knocking noise from, seemingly, inside the glove compartment, the locks require an expert touch and brute force to open, the radio does not work (thanks to someone nicking the aerial) and the windows won’t open (major design flaw not to have a manual option).

Keep going, we're getting there...
Keep going, we’re getting there…

While that’s fine for much of the year, in the height of summer and combined with a temperamental air con system, it can make journeys a tad uncomfortable (to say nothing of the difficulties paying at toll booths or car parks).

But at least there was a good soundtrack.

This latest section has taken us from The Bell by The Villagers to Birds Flew Backwards by Doves and thrown up a few anomalies – three tracks from Patterson Hood in five entries (all from the sole album of his on my iPod) and REM’s Überlin confusing Apple’s finest engineering and appearing among the Bs.

And it also brought back memories of some long-standing pub arguments.

Once upon a time, The City Arms in Cardiff was the gathering spot for a group of journalists and friends, usually with no or little prior arrangement – we knew that from 6pm-ish on a Saturday, after the old Sports Echo had gone to press, whoever was on duty would wander round from the office to the pub and we would gradually gather, feed the jukebox, mull over the day’s results and put the world  to rights.

Faces changed, venues shifted, Fridays became the new Saturday – regardless of the fact several of us had to be up for a 12-hour plus shift on Wales on Sunday the next day – but a core group (now spread across the country, but several will gather in Edinburgh this weekend for a stag do) remained in place and, even with some truly awful smelling toilets, The City Arms was (and always will be) our spiritual home.

Some of what was discussed became a regular element in my Sports Echo column, although most of it has been long forgotten (probably for the best), but the ongoing discussions between two of us included debating the best Smiths and Radiohead albums – while he went for Meat Is Murder and OK Computer, my argument was always in favour of The Queen Is Dead and The Bends.

Nothing against his choices, both excellent albums. But both The Queen Is Dead and The Bends work, almost flawlessly, as complete works from start to finish and belong to that elite group of albums which should always be listened in that manner and never (repeat, never) shuffled.

From time to time, those arguments are rekindled via social media and, chances are, when we finally get round to reconvening in The City Arms, they will spark up again.

The Bends and Bigmouth Strikes Again popped up among the highlights of this latest section, but they were far from the only ones from artists who soundtracked the same section of my life.

Billy BraggAlong with Billy Bragg (Between The Wars), The Wedding Present (three versions of Bewitched) and The Lemonheads (Big Gay Heart), who we have stumbled across a few times, there was also Big Decision by That Petrol Emotion, an excellent track they never really got round to repeating (not that the O’Neill’s songwriting talent hadn’t flourished elsewhere).

There were also a couple of excellent newer entries from Sun Kil Moon (Ben Is My Friend) and Palma Violets (Best of Friends), while we careered through 800 with Beware Your Only Friend by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

The Prince was partly behind one of the finest overheard chat-up lines when the person responsible for him being in my collection once asked a girl “Do you want to come back to mine and listen to some miserable music?”. Remarkably, think it actually worked.

While the Big songs we have mentioned soundtracked the journey to Cardiff, the sweltering return was dominated by variations on Bill – pick of them Bill Hicks by Hamell on Trial (a bit of a discovery), Billie Holiday by Warpaint and Billy by Prefab Sprout – and Bird, most notably Birdbrain by Buffalo Tom and Birdhouse In Your Soul by They Might Be Giants.

Off to open a window…

 

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